Paulo Freire, 99

Image: Stela Grespan


Commentary on the intellectual trajectory and legacy of the philosopher and educator

“Asked why the deponent has such a horror of rigidity and even schematization (...), not accepting a booklet, which the deponent considers all reactionary, the deponent replied that (...) he does not accept rigid schemas because he considers them to limit intelligence of man” (Interrogation of Paulo Freire in the Military Police Inquiry. Recife, June 1, 1964).

If he were alive, educator and philosopher Paulo Freire would have turned 99 on September 19, 2020. Even when his name was much less known, Freire was already bothering the executioners of the military dictatorship. As time went by, the power of Freire's philosophy grew. Its prestige spread across the world. The annoyance only increased, and the heirs of the dictatorship continue to pursue him.

The dictatorship that expelled Paulo Freire from Brazil in 1964, paradoxically, helped spread his pedagogy around the world. Like an aikido fighter, Freire used his opponent's repressive energy as a boost to his own strength. Today, something similar happens again: the more the right makes an effort to slander Freire, the more it inadvertently contributes to spreading positive interest among Brazilian youth for the ideas that inspire a pedagogy for liberation. Persecution seems incapable of silencing Freire, whose message is now more urgent than ever.

The multiplication of the pedagogy of the oppressed

It was the dictatorship that forced Paulo Freire to step outside Brazil for the first time. Gradually, his dedicated work in exile established him as a globally renowned educator and one of the most cited authors in the world. Its pedagogy has multiplied and diversified, reaching all corners of the planet, in the most different societies, becoming an unavoidable reference. Part of this proliferation power had to do with one of the central characteristics of Freire's philosophy of praxis: the decentralization of pedagogical power.

What is, after all, the pedagogy of the oppressed? It is a meeting between two collective subjects, educators and students, who build a non-hierarchical dialogical relationship, breaking the culture of silence imposed on the oppressed and practicing reciprocal active listening. These subjects learn from each other, form alliances in the search for a critical awareness of the reality in which they live and, as historical subjects, act to transform it. The pedagogy of the oppressed movement is feeling-thinking, practical and theoretical, realistic, critical and hopeful.

When pedagogical power is decentralized, it can appear invisible to executioners, the guardians of oppression. That's why they fear him. To see the pedagogy of the oppressed, it is necessary to see the subjective strength of the people that the system insists on treating as objects. In short: to humanize everyone's view, something that executioners refuse to do. What they don't know is that Freirean pedagogy is not a political culture that can be destroyed even though they tried in 1964.

Lessons from an interrogation: the horror of rigidity

In the first attempt to destroy Paulo Freire's pedagogy, he was arrested twice before his exile. Between June and September 1964, Freire spent 70 days in the Recife Guard Company and in the Olinda Prison, where he was punished in solitary confinement. He felt uneasy about missing his family, managed to hug Francisco Julião once and talk to Clodomir Morais, as reported to Sérgio Guimarães. In jail, he was invited by an uninformed captain to teach the barracks cables to read and write. The captain asked him: “Professor, don't you want to apply your method to our recruits? There are many illiterates”. And he replied perplexed: "But captain, it's exactly because of the method that I'm here!".

The executioners of 1964 were very curious about the mysteries of modern pedagogy and its articulation with Marxism. Where did the enchantment of Paulo Freire's method come from? Colonel Ibiapino, in the Military Police Inquiry of June 1, 1964, asked him about the theses of Dalton, Montessori, Mackinder, Decroly, Kilpatrick, Iena de Peterson, Cousinet, among others. As in an oral test of banking education, Freire calmly answered what each author's main argument was and how his pedagogy related to theirs.

The interrogation situation was Kafkaesque. The inquisitor could not accept that the “supposed method”, as he liked to repeat, did not have a primer. In search of evidence, the military did not find Freire's subversive materials. Where were the doctrinal primers? As these never existed outside of repressive paranoia, the best proof of subversion that the military found was the painting by Francisco Brennand, kept in the room of the Department of Extension at the University of Recife. The painting portrayed the existential situation no4 (literate culture) of the literacy experience in Angicos: a hunter with his shotgun. It was interpreted as an apology for armed struggle.

“Asked why the deponent has such a horror of rigidity (...), not accepting a booklet, (...) the deponent replied that (...) he does not accept rigid schemes because he considers them to limit man's intelligence”, show the interrogation documents . The interrogators demanded that he explain the similarities of his method to Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Perón. “None,” he replied. They inquired about his links with Brazilian and French communism, with the Popular Culture Movement, with Miguel Arraes, with Leonel Brizola. Freire explained that he worked for governments that wanted to hire him, including UDN, with USAID resources.

The survey continued: “asked what the difference was between his literacy method and the basic Marxism courses given even in Pernambuco, he replied that he did not know the courses. He doesn't know what method was used in those courses”. Finally, when asked about who his enemies would be, Freire said that he did not have them.

I keep imagining Paulo Freire, serene, responding to all that with such disarmed sincerity that it was even embarrassing for the military. At that moment, they had the chance to understand, but they refused. It was before his eyes, registered with a luminous simplicity: “For the deponent, the fundamental thing is to educate, never to indoctrinate (sic)” recorded the interrogator in the inquiry.

Around the world in 16 years

To avoid a third arrest, Freire escaped in November 1964. At the age of 43, he left Brazil for the first time, exiled. A few days after landing in La Paz, he was surprised by the coup in Bolivia, which overthrew President Paz Estenssoro. He had to cross the second border clandestinely until he was welcomed by Chileans and the group of Brazilian exiles in Santiago. Among them, Paulo de Tarso, Jango's minister who had hired him to coordinate the MEC's ​​Literacy Campaign, and Plinio de Arruda Sampaio, editor of the Brazilian agrarian reform project, which never came to pass.

In Chile, Freire was well received by the Christian Democracy (DC) government. The government adopted its literacy method and gave it all the conditions to train educators, extension technicians and cultural action teams for agrarian reform. As a consultant for Unesco, the Brazilian professor circulated between the Chilean Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Education, never losing touch with the popular bases. He toured settlements and dialogued with humble people in the Andean corners. In 1968, when he was writing the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, traveled to Mexico invited by his friend Ivan Illich, where he sowed some of his Chilean discoveries.

In 1969, Freire left for the United States, after a strong internal split within DC. Accusatory rumors related to a “dangerous book” that the Brazilian wrote, whose manuscript was presented to the couple Jacques Chonchol and Maria Edy Ferreira. At Harvard University, he served as a visiting professor, published his studies in English, and was celebrated by American intellectuals. Since his first visit to the country, he had encountered “the South that exists within the North” and participated in popular education activities in the black and Latino peripheries.

In 1970 he left for Geneva, assuming the leadership of the Department of Education of the World Council of Churches. From there it spread throughout the world: in addition to becoming even more influential in Europe and the United States, it coordinated literacy and cultural action agreements in Guinea-Bissau, Angola, São Tomé, Zambia, Tanzania, Gabon, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Granada , Haiti, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, among others.

His tormentors could not even have imagined that, upon returning to his homeland in 1980, the man from Recife would already be one of the best-known Brazilians on the planet.

Back home

Upon returning from exile, in 1980, Paulo Freire was celebrated by the educational world and invited to lead cultural projects in NGOs (such as the Vereda Foundation and the Cajamar Institute), in addition to teaching at PUC in São Paulo. In 1986, he received the title of São Paulo citizen proposed by Luiza Erundina in the City Council and the prestigious Unesco award for Education for Peace. By the end of the 1980s, he already had twelve Doctor Honoris Causa, five in Brazil. When he died in 1997, he owned 35 of these titles.

In 1981, he joined the PT. As Freire's presence never went unnoticed, the right followed closely behind him. That year, Cardinal Vicente Scherer of Porto Alegre declared that Freire's educational philosophy was incompatible with Christian principles – even after a decade of attending the World Council of Churches. Despite the repression against Liberation Theology by the dictatorship, this strand was still strong in the 1980s, making conservative clerical authorities feel the need to remove Paulo Freire. It was no use: the movements of CEBs and Pastorals remained inspired by Freire's cultural action. As he himself joked: “my meetings with Marx never suggested to me that I stop having meetings with Christ”.

The participation of popular Christian and workers' movements in the formation of the PT was one of the aspects that convinced Freire to join the party. Luiza Erundina, who was a literacy teacher in the 1970s, had been an admirer of his for decades. In her candidacy for mayor of São Paulo, in 1989, she announced Paulo Freire as Secretary of Education even before he had confirmed the invitation. Freire's short passage through municipal public management was full of creations, but not without conflicts.

As secretary of education at Erundina, Freire created School Councils so that communities could participate in decisions, increased teacher salaries and strengthened youth and adult education with the Adult Education Program and the Youth and Adult Literacy Movement (Mova ). He insisted on replacing the name “Delegacia de Ensino” with “Núcleo de Ação Educativa”. Its objective was to mobilize the community of educators, parents and students to collectively take ownership of the educational process. He was also fundamental in valuing school employees (doormen, secretaries, cooks, cleaning women) as educators in everyday school life.

The biggest controversy that Freire faced as secretary was over the curriculum. He proposed the democratization of contents and thematic investigation as a method, radically decentralizing curricular guidelines. He bet on horizontality. But the professors themselves offered resistance and criticisms also began to emerge within the PT (not to mention the constant attacks and distortions by the press). After a year and a half, Freire ended up resigning from the Secretariat in 1991, despite the mayor's insistence.

Until his death in 1997, he dedicated himself to writing books, building dialogues, educational work at universities and NGOs, in addition to organizing the Paulo Freire Institute, to house his trajectory and continue it.

Where is Paulo Freire's legacy today?

Freirean pedagogy has a horror of rigidity, but has very firm principles in the fight for equality and dignity, in the urgency of emancipating the oppressed and in the creation of a radically solidary society. In the historical context of the Cold War, in which revolutionaries fought for the classic seizure of power, Paulo Freire's perspective confused the dominant classes, acting molecularly in peripheral places, offering a powerful tool for dialogue and emancipatory action to those below.

Freire's political legacy teaches that the change we need to build can only be carried out by the collective peripheral subject, which refuses to be objectified. Paulo Freire's methodological and pedagogical legacy is visible in different practices, although it is far from being systemic or institutionalized. This inversion is a propagandist tactic of its newest persecutors.

Where do you see Paulo Freire today? Brazil still has one of the greatest assets of Youth and Adult Education in the world, whose origin dates back to the 1940s, but whose current dynamics and inspiration result from Freire's educational philosophy. The dismantling of the EJA system advances at a rapid rate by neoliberal governments and city halls, which close classes and dismiss teachers. Today there are 200 illiterate adults in Brazil, but the biggest problem is functional illiteracy, which also leads to political illiteracy.

In basic education, curiously, Freire's legacy is concentrated in the schools of the enlightened elites. High-end private schools are inspired by the pedagogy of the problem and the question, in the autonomy and protagonism of the students, in the circles of dialogue and in a series of concepts and tools derived from Paulo Freire. Meanwhile, in public schools there is a very diffuse Freirean culture, much more fragile than the extreme right imagines. Freire's practices in the public school result more from the specific action of groups of teachers than from the institutions themselves, which preserve conservative directions. It is still much more common than we would like for students to spend entire classes copying pages from textbooks, within educational banking dynamics, or simply without classes.

But it is above all in the pedagogy of social movements that Paulo Freire lives in an integral sense. The Freirean pedagogical practices that strengthen popular movements have been fundamental for the resistance of the oppressed. The MST, with whom Freire was directly related in the 1980s and 1990s, it still cultivates Freirean practices in its interior, in its popular schools and in its mystics for struggle. O MTST, which grew in the XNUMXst century, structured its own nuclei and strategies for political formation and popular education.

The subjective cohesion of peripheral struggles is what allows many collectives and movements to cross the fascist tide with emotional health, a sense of community, their own dynamism and the cultivation of hope. In this century, new movements of popular education emerged throughout the country, responding to the important demand of young people from the periphery to enter good universities. Inspired by Paulo Freire, today, the Emancipa Network of Popular Education it has more than 60 popular courses in eleven states of the country and a large number of cultural action projects. A uneafro it has more than 50 offices in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, coordinating anti-racist mobilizations and fundamental educational actions in the peripheries. Quilombola education, indigenous education and the pedagogy of popular movements are direct tributaries of Freirean culture.

Freire against Bolsonaro

In Bolsonaro's Brazil, the left needs to reread and reflect on the Pedagogy of the Oppressed to understand more deeply the psychic mechanisms of internalization of the oppressor among the impoverished. As long as there is no achievable alternative for collective emancipation, it is natural for the oppressed to understand that the only way out is to become an oppressor and for them to develop mechanisms of admiration for “winners”, bosses and businessmen. In the absence of perspectives, the world of work is absorbed by the neoliberal rationality of the individual-company, which mimics the image of what will never be.

In Freirean terms, it was precisely the “adherence to the oppressor” that brought us here. “The big problem”, he warned in 1968, “is how the oppressed, who 'host' the oppressor in themselves, will be able to participate in the elaboration (…) of the pedagogy of their liberation. Only to the extent that 'hosts' of the oppressor are discovered will they be able to contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy”. And he continues: “the act of rebellion of the oppressed, which is always as or almost as violent as the violence that creates them, this act of the oppressed, yes, can inaugurate love”.

In the past and in the present, oppressors feel the need to destroy Paulo Freire and what he stands for. His tormentors have returned to power and will continue to spread fears and lies. But Bolsonarism is already defeated in the attempt to destroy the Freirian legacy. Today, a culture of struggle grows molecularly in Brazil: more and more people feel the need to organize themselves into collectives, recreate community meanings, pay more attention to their surroundings, study and prepare for combat. Youth develops its creative potential, popular movements accumulate strength for the next cycle of struggles.

Freire said he was hopeful because of the “existential and historical imperative”. More than anyone else, he knew that fighting is done with your feet on the ground, with patience and not always with megaphones turned on. It's time to go back to the streets.

*Joana Salem Vasconcelos is a doctoral candidate in Economic History at USP. Author of Agrarian history of the Cuban revolution: dilemmas of socialism in the periphery (Avenue).

Originally published in the magazine Jacobin Brazil.


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